(NOTE: I again announce the publication in Israel of my new book, entitled “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” It is written in English, available now in Israel and should arrive in the United States in a little over a month. Then, it will be available at fine Jewish bookstores. Even now, it can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or Bn.com. Enjoy!)
My new book (have you heard??) is entitled “Tzadka Mimeni” to recall a specific incident in the Bible that had enormous and historic ramifications. It was the phrase Yehuda (son of Yaakov) used to admit his complicity in the affair with Tamar, who refused to publicly identify him as the father of her child but subtly indicated so to Yehuda. Rather than deny, obfuscate, change the topic or blame someone else, Yehuda admitted his role: “Tzadka Mimeni.” She is more righteous than I am. She is right. I am wrong. It is my fault.
That confession not only saved Tamar’s life and was an act of moral courage; it also qualified Yehuda, in the opinion of our Sages, to become the progenitor of the royal house of Israel. It was the response of a real leader, who knows how to take responsibility for misdeeds and failures and not pass the buck to others.
Those days are long gone, at least here in the United States.
Barack Obama’s inability to take responsibility for anything has become a running joke, albeit one without humor and incapable of inducing laughter. These cannot even be considered gaffes, as they are second (or first?) nature to him. The most recent example is almost run-of-the-mill. Asked whether he was surprised by the rise of ISIL, Obama shifted responsibility for being surprised to the equally hapless James Clapper, even if the intelligence services had, indeed, warned of ISIL’s rise more than a half-year ago. “It wasn’t me! It was him! He didn’t tell me!”
It is actually worse than that. I receive a daily briefing on the military situation in Iraq and environs (you can too!) from the Institute for the Study of War, complete with maps and analysis. Note this:
“ISW’s Jessica Lewis assessed in July 2013 that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi literally aimed to declare an Islamic State: “When al Qaeda in Iraq last enjoyed this operational advantage, it chose to announce the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and to appoint emirs and Shura councils in every province. This historical parallel places Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent announcements of his envisioned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the literal context of a deliberate campaign to establish governance over areas in Iraq and Syria.”
Check the date: July 2013. That was 15 months ago, at least six months before ISIL became better known in America, and 12 months before they started beheading American journalists.
In August 2013 (that’s over a year ago), ISW reported on ISIL’s territorial gains in Iraq and in Syria, a period that by pure chance coincided with the President’s annual Martha’s Vineyard location. What does ISW know that Obama doesn’t? Perhaps their analysts pay more attention to the intelligence coming their way than the President does to his. Perhaps the President should subscribe to ISW’s daily reports, although he would still have to read them.
But that is only the latest example. The hallmark of this administration has been a headlong flight from personal responsibility – on Putin’s military advances, the botched rollout of Obamacare, the corruption and dirty-dealing at the IRS, the Benghazi attack, the failures at the Veterans Administration, etc., and etc. to the etc. Events seem to swirl around this President and he is often, apparently, the last to know what is happening on his watch and the least able to influence the course of events. He will look dutifully somber, and promise justice, getting to the bottom, etc., but without much passion, engagement, or real acceptance of responsibility. That the White House admitted this week that they learned at the same time the press did that an armed felon rode in an elevator with the President and an unsuspecting Secret Service along for the ride is par for the course (pardon the golf reference). All agencies take their lead from the chief; it stands to reason that the Secret Service is as detached as the man they are sworn to protect.
Indeed, judging by customary reactions from this White House, George W. Bush is more responsible for the events of the last six years than Barack Obama.
This diffidence has had the effect of reducing Obama and the United States on the world scene. Part of this is intentional: Obama believes the dispatch of the American military across the world to be an “evil,” which he will not do absent an attack on the homeland, and perhaps not even then. He does not perceive the US military as a positive, virtuous force (witness the “coffee salute”) but rather as a symptom of the “bad America” that he was elected to transform. And part of this is simply the natural effect of the way Obama is perceived by other world leaders, especially American allies who are counting the days and holding their collective breaths until January 20, 2017.
This week, and once again, Obama was rebuked in private by PM Netanyahu, admonished to “study the facts and details” before reflexively criticizing Israel’s municipal building plans. Foreign leaders have the advantage of piercing the cordon sanitaire that Valerie Jarrett has erected around Obama to shield him from criticism. In private, they tell him exactly how they feel, even if in public, they pay him deference, out of respect to his office and especially to the historic role of the US in world affairs which will outlive even Obama’s efforts to strangle it. Obama, after six years, is unaccustomed to hearing criticism or even dissenting voices and is visibly uncomfortable with it. But it exists.
Netanyahu, who is a serious man and proved it again this week (he also remains Israel’s most effective spokesman when he is overseas), knows that Obama will do nothing about Iran’s nuclear program. The American president lacks both the will and a plan, and, like with ISIS, will offer desultory demonstrations of resolve and might, however ineffectual they are. (In the case of ISIS, an air show that will change nothing on the ground, and in the case of Iran, an empty agreement that will also change nothing.) Personally, I found Obama’s repeated references to the PM as “Bibi” to be disparaging attempts to belittle him; Netanyahu, presumably, had the grace not to refer to Obama as “Barry.” (But did Israel’s PM have to traipse from one treif restaurant to the next in NYC, of all places, and during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, of all times? There was a time when Israeli leaders had a little more Jewish pride, or at least, self-awareness.)
Incidentally, as noted here not long ago, Obama takes liberties with his conduct of “war” that he doesn’t allow Israel – e.g., bombing from the air (which he insisted that Israel not do in Gaza; for the most part, they ignored him). It is also fascinating how there seem to be no casualties from any US bombing run – neither terrorist nor civilian. Those really are smart bombs.
Leadership requires, first and foremost, the capacity to accept responsibility in a serious and sincere way. So does atonement. At the very heart of Yom Kippur is the recognition, stated again and again, that “I am responsible” for my sins. No one else is responsible. I cannot pound the chest of the person standing next to me, as tempting as that sounds. I cannot shift blame to others for my failures. I cannot hang my mistakes on the fellow who preceded me in my seat in shul.
If anything, the contrast between the modern world and G-d’s expectations for us is so stunning that it should force us to take a deeper, more introspective look at our deeds and misdeeds, our ambitions and objectives in life. Fortunately, Yom Kippur provides us the opportunity to do that.
Politics aside (this too shall pass), our inner world is the real world in which our moral perfection is sought and measured, and where it has true substance and makes an eternal difference. May we take such messages to heart, merit G-d’s grace and forgiveness, and be inscribed for a year of life, good health, prosperity and peace.